Badgers beat writer, DI sports staff preview Illinois football’s match against Wisconsin

Senior+quarterback+Tommy+DeVito+goes+to+throw+the+ball+during+the+game+against+Wyoming+on+Aug.+27.+

Sydney Laput

Senior quarterback Tommy DeVito goes to throw the ball during the game against Wyoming on Aug. 27.

By Carson Gourdie, Sports Video Editor

Wisconsin football beat writer previews offense, defense ahead of Illinois matchup

Jesse Temple, the Wisconsin Badger football beat writer for The Athletic, predicts that the Badgers will bounce back and knock off the 3-1 Illinois Fighting Illini.

The last time Illinois football knocked off Wisconsin on the road was in 2002, but according to the point spread, a victory this Saturday wouldn’t be too shocking. Illinois is currently only a touchdown-underdog, and a victory over Wisconsin would provide a major boost to the Illini’s bowl hopes — and potentially a dark horse run to the West Division championship.

But Jesse Temple, the Wisconsin Badgers beat writer for The Athletic, believes that the Badgers will be difficult to upset because of its running back play and doubts about Illinois quarterback Tommy DeVito’s ability to keep opposing defenses honest. 

Some of his most notable quotes from our discussion are listed below. 

Wisconsin’s ability to run the ball 

“This is the Badgers’ bread and butter since Barry Alvarez was hired in 1990 is you’re gonna have a stout offensive line, you’re going to run the ball, and you’re going to try to sprinkle in some passes and have a sound defense. So you’re gonna see a lot of Braylon Allen. He’s the next superstar running back for the Badgers.

“If Wisconsin is gonna win it has to be complimentary football. Braylon Allen being held under 100 yards is not a great recipe for success for Wisconsin.”

Temple’s views on Wisconsin QB Graham Mertz

“They’ve got to be able to consistently put Graham in a good position on third down, have it be third and manageable. I think Graham is certainly capable of throwing for 200 plus yards, I’m not gonna go, you know, 250, 300 (yards). He did throw for 251 yards a couple of weeks ago, but that was against New Mexico State, which is one of the worst teams in the FBS. I think it’s notable though the improvement that he’s made, again, didn’t necessarily show up against Ohio State consistently. But in the first three games, he eclipsed the 200 yard passing mark in each game. That’s the first time he’d ever done that in three straight games. And you look back to last year, he only threw for 200 plus yards in three of 13 games. So he’s much better, he’s more consistent. He’s fixed some mechanical issues that he had during the offseason. But it comes back again to the running game to be able to help set up the pass.

“I think Graham will make smart decisions. That’s one of the things that he’s done a lot better this year as he’s been a better decision maker.”

Temple doubts DeVito’s ability to put up big yards against Wisconsin 

“I would not expect that to be the case against this Wisconsin defense. I think they’re probably disappointed that they’ve gotten pressure on quarterbacks, but not enough sacks that got 51 pressures this year and seven sacks. I think this is a game where Wisconsin can start to impose its will a little bit more defensively. And if you’re asking the quarterback to do something that he hasn’t shown himself able to do to this point, I don’t think it’s going to happen at Camp Randall Stadium in front of 80,000 fans with a defense that is pissed off and wants to show that what happened against Ohio State is not going to happen again.”

What went wrong defensively against Ohio State

“The biggest issues that have popped up have been the lack of consistent communication. A lot of those guys got wide eyes because Ohio State was playing fast. Defenders thought they saw a look, and it wasn’t what they saw. They didn’t really trust their reads. And they’ve been missing tackles. That was, as I mentioned, a big play against Washington State was a missed tackle. (Wisconsin had) 11 missed tackles against Washington state. They had 12 missed tackles against Ohio State. So there are certainly some areas to clean up.

​​“Ohio State has the best players. They beat you with speed and space. They had 12 plays of 10 plus yards in the first quarter. That’s ridiculous. They were on pace for 840 yards of total offense after the first quarter. So I certainly think the speed contributes to it. But you get your best players the ball and they’re going to make something happen.

“But I do think it’s notable that they played some zone coverage, and dudes were just wide open. And Paul Chryst even said, after the game, even when they went to (man-to-man coverage) there were people that were wide open for whatever reason, there were guys on defense, who were just so far back off there. I don’t know if that was just being anxious, or I think it goes back to the coaches put them in position to succeed, and the players didn’t execute.”

Why Wisconsin will win, according to Temple 

“I think Wisconsin is going to win this game. I think if the Badgers don’t, then the sky is going to be falling in Madison, because not only would you lose to Bret Bielema, who used to coach at Wisconsin, but you’re essentially showing that you’re slipping behind teams in the Big Ten West that you have dominated not just for a year or two, but for decades.

“Chase Brown is outstanding, (but) I think the defense is going to be ready for him. I know that Illinois has a better passing attack, they can complement each other a lot better. I just think that (the Wisconsin defense) is going to respond.”

Carson’s overall analysis

Temple brought up excellent points about whether DeVito has truly proven if he can win his team a game with his arm. Brown, the leading rusher in college football, showed great vision, but this is the most talented defensive front he’s played against this season. If the Badgers hold Brown to less than 100 yards, it’s unlikely the Illini pull off an upset without a big day from DeVito. 

But this Wisconsin Badger offense has struggled a lot against Power-Five competition this season. They could only muster 14 points against the Washington State Cougars, and the Ohio State Buckeyes didn’t allow the Badgers’ offense to cross midfield until it was already 28-0. 

While Allen has had a productive year so far, in both against Washington State and Ohio State, Allen struggled to take his team to the next level. For example, Washington State did a good job of limiting the big play — the longest rush allowed to Allen was 17 yards. And against Ohio State, Allen finished with over 150 rushing yards, but 120 of them came in the fourth quarter while the team was down by 38. 

Allen’s inability to generate rushing yards in the first three quarters forced the offense to have to try to pass the ball more regularly. But Mertz performed poorly against the Buckeyes, resulting in several three-and-outs in the first half while the Buckeyes poured it on the Badger defense. 

Illinois’ key to the game will be replicating the Buckeye game plan of shutting down the Badger run game early on. Forcing Mertz to beat you through the air is more favorable for the Illini defense, and keeping the score close will allow the Illini to not have to abandon the running game. In last season’s 24-0 loss to the Badgers, Brown only received eight carries and 32 yards, as the Illini were forced to pass the ball while trying to catch up to a three-possession deficit. 

The run pass option — a dimension Illinois tested out against Chattanooga — worked well for the Buckeyes against the Badgers, as well as having its pass catchers run delayed routes, meaning they pretended to block before trying to get open to catch the ball. Ohio State has better wide receiver personnel than the Illini, so it remains to be seen if Pat Bryant or Isaiah Williams can replicate the Buckeye game plan against the usually stout Badger defense. 

However, while Temple believes the Badgers will win Saturday, I believe the Illini pull off the road upset. I believe defensive linemen Keith Randolph and Johnny Newton will slow down the Badger rushing attack, forcing Mertz to try to win the game with his arm. While Brown will be slowed down, DeVito decision making and ability to run an up-tempo offense will suit the Illini better than the slow-paced offense led by Artur Sitkowski last season. 

Illinois 21, Wisconsin 16. 

 

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